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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Mahmoud takes Manhattan

    Columbia controversy embodies fight for free speech

    “”We cannot make war or peace. We can only make minds, and to do this we must have the most fulsome freedom of inquiry.””

    So said Columbia University president Lee Bollinger in a scathing and impassioned introduction yesterday of an entirely different president – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the widely reviled leader of Iran. Although many questioned the decision to allow Ahmadinejad an opportunity to speak, in the end it proved a powerful example of the virtue of free expression.

    Last week, Columbia announced that it had invited Ahmadinejad to address the campus during a trip to New York to speak at the United Nations.

    Immediately, the decision exploded into controversy. Many students and faculty condemned the university for giving a public platform to a notable extremist. Pundits and politicians nationwide seized the opportunity to parade their own views on tense relations with Iran. As the address drew nearer, protest and opposition grew more and more pronounced. Thousands of demonstrators of widespread persuasions voiced their opinions on Columbia’s campus – gathering for organized demonstrations, plastering the school with posters and flyers, and publishing statements of their opposition to or support for the speech.

    Naturally, debate spread beyond the validity of the controversial invitation into the meaning of free speech, the ethics of academic inquiry and the legitimacy of the Iranian regime. Bollinger added his voice to the dialogue when he delivered a stern preamble to Ahmadinejad’s speech.

    “”Mr. President,”” Bollinger said in his introduction, “”you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.””

    This stringent claim is far from hyperbole. Ahmadinejad has called the Holocaust a “”fabricated legend.”” He presides over a government that represses protest, jails academics and tortures dissidents. There is compelling evidence that his regime is directly responsible for killing American troops in Iraq by providing weapons and aid to insurgents, and that it has continued to pursue the development of nuclear weapons in defiance of the international community.

    But as acutely evil as his actions or those of the Iranian government may be, he is the leader of a nation of increasingly great geopolitical importance. To shy from engagement with his arguments out of disdain for their content would have been unwise. To believe that his position of power or the invitation to speak confer any credibility on his assertions is fallacious.

    With the right to free speech comes a necessity to speak words of meaning. Ahmadinejad did not. He delivered a rambling lecture on science, truth and divinity that did nothing to legitimize his actions or those of Iran.

    With the right to free speech comes a demand to eloquently address opposition. Ahmadinejad’s evasion and refusal of most of the questions posed to him during the speech failed to meet this challenge.

    And, with the right to free speech comes exposure to the reproach and criticism of others in the public forum. What little of substance Ahmadinejad said is already being scrutinized by skeptical observers.

    In the end, Ahmadinejad’s comments did no harm. In fact, they merely revealed his dubiety. The protest surrounding his appearance advanced a public discussion of issues that have been drowned out in the past by the beat of war drums and the rattle of sabers.

    “”In universities, we have a deep and almost single-minded commitment to pursue the truth,”” Bollinger said. Columbia facilitating Ahmadinejad’s controversial speech was a principled example of dedication to this commitment, and to the ideal of free speech.

    It is a duty of the American university to promote dialogue, expression and intellectual courage. We hope that ours – and others – will follow Columbia’s precedent.

    OPINIONS BOARD: Editorials are determined by the Wildcat opinions board and written by one of its members. They are Justyn Dillingham, Allison Hornick, Sarah Keeler, Connor Mendenhall, Jeremiah Simmons and Allison Dumka.

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